Review written by Flossie Waite
A Lyric Hammersmith and Pins and Needles Production
Originally reviewed at Lyric Hammersmith in 2014
Playing until 24th December 2017
For children under 6
Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas is the story of a grumpy old man muttering to himself as he does a night shift. The Christmas miracle that Raymond Briggs first performed in 1973, and that the Lyric Hammersmith and Pins and Needles have recreated, is to turn it into a festive, entertaining classic.
The grouchy Santa has cemented himself in the nation’s Christmas; in our household, it is a tradition to watch the animation every Christmas Eve. You just can’t mess with Christmas traditions. When a story and a character are so treasured, it would be wonderful to bring them to life, but you have to get it right – and it’s easy to get it wrong. Just look at The Snowman.
This Father Christmas sticks loyally to the things that made the story so wonderful in the first place – the aesthetic style is faithfully reproduced; the limited speech is there; the moodiness of St Nick isn’t sweetened for the stage. But this isn’t a purist’s version – and all the better for it.
Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas has considered carefully what will work best for the stage, and how to adapt the story so that it is an inventive, innovative but recognisable piece of theatre. This version does not reveal what Father Christmas gets up to the other 364 days of the year, following him as he globe trots on his holidays. The only time this part of the original plot is touched on is when he’s flicking through travel brochures on the loo. No, this is a detailed behind-the-scenes look purely at Father Christmas’ big night – Christmas Eve.
Stacey Ghent provides the sound and music, and this is a complete masterstroke. Tucked away up by the rooftops, in what seems like an attic full of odd bits and bobs, she uses these random objects to create the crunch of snow under Father Christmas’ boot, the strike of a match when he’s lighting the cooker, the plop when he’s sat in the W.C. … as well as the music, providing the score for the action, and songs for the little radio he takes with him in the sleigh. It’s hard to know where to look, at Ghent or Father Christmas: she is so involved in every moment (and utterly disgusted as she creates the soundtrack to his toilet trip), and it’s so interesting to watch how she makes sound effects.
Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas is a story that lacks conversation, but between Stacey Ghent’s sounds and Barry McCarthy’s mumbling, a dialogue of sorts builds up. McCarthy as Father Christmas is a superb and animated mutterer, with endless growling, grumbling noises, and no end of facial expressions either. He strikes a balance between cantankerous and ‘quite nice really’, masterfully stomping his way through the production in his fur-trimmed boots.
The stage is packed with set, which manoeuvres and shifts to become just like the illustrations – the kitchen is there, the rooftops are there, the reindeer stable, the W.C. Zoe Squire’s design is ingenious but playful: the passing of time as Santa Claus delivers gifts is marked by sections of the walls opening like doors on an advent calendar. There’s palpable anticipation about how Father Christmas will get into the sky to begin his present-giving – no matter how clever the set is, there just isn’t enough space for a sleigh and reindeer, and there’s no way they’ll be able to fly… Is there? This scene alone will have any Scrooge who thinks they can’t bear ‘another bloomin’ christmas’ buying a turkey with all the trimmings.
If Christmas is the only time that children visit the theatre (and for many, sadly that is the case) then the best hope is that they see a production with enough imagination and magic, that leaves enough vibrant memories, to spark their desire to go again. Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas is that good; it’s just the ticket to prove that theatre is for life, not just for Christmas.
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